Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Evidential Value of Miracle Reports

I will discuss only the evidential value of miracle reports. I will say nothing of direct experience of a putative miracle. The epistemological problems that attend to the first are not identical to those that attend to the second.

By "miracle", I mean an event whose occurrence could not be been brought about purely natural causes but must instead have had a supernatural cause. Miracles are more than nature by itself can muster. They require a cause that is outside nature. In a miraculous event, the supernatural as it were breaks into the natural order and accomplishes more than the natural could have done unaided.

Moreover, in what follows I mean to limit myself to those miracle reports that assign God - the infinitely good, infinitely powerful, infinitely wise creator and redeemer of the world - as the cause.

Argument. So let us say that word has come to us of a miracle. (I find that I quickly tire as I write "putative miracle" again and again. So from here on understand that by "miracle" I mean "putative miracle".) The miracle occurred in a land far away, at a time far in the past. It is, let us say, a report of a resurrection. We have multiple sources for the report, but we have no reason to suppose that they are independent. Perhaps they are, perhaps they aren't. Moreover, our sources wrote their accounts no earlier than 40 years after the event they recount, and in the time between occurrence and first written record, the memory of the event was kept alive in speech and speech alone. (This, I take it, closely parallels the miracle reports in the New Testament.) Now let us say that we wish to ascertain whether the miracle did really occur. We cannot of course simply accept the reports at face value. We know all too well that many, many miracle reports are spurious - what they say happened in fact did not happen. Thus we must weigh the evidence in favor of their truth and the evidence against, and when we do we must take great care that we not claim to know more than we do. A very real possibility is that we will find ourselves unable to render a judgment about the likelihood that the reports are true.

Now, as we attempt to ascertain whether the miracle reports are true, we must ask ourselves three questions:

I. What is the probability that the accounts have not been embellished or plain made up?

II. Given that the accounts are tolerably accurate, what is the probability that there exists a natural but perhaps undiscovered cause of the event reported?

III. Given that there exists a supernatural cause of the event reported, what is the probability that that supernatural cause is God?

As should be obvious, only if the probabilities of I, II are low and the probability of III high do we have good reason to suppose that God lies at the root of the miracle.

What is the probability of I for our miracle report? I find it impossible to answer. We have no insight into that oral tradition that first transmitted the report. Moreover, we all have experience with the susceptibility of such reports to transmute over time and thus come to contain some measure, whether great or small, of error. I recently came across a wonderful example of this. In Lafayette, IN (my present home) there is a house where the Christmas tree is never take down. It's readily visible from a street near down-town, and most if not all long-time residents of Lafayette have seen it. Soon after my arrival to Lafayette, I was told this story about it: In the late 60s, a young left for the Vietnam war. It was Christmas when he left, and his parents promised him that they wouldn't take the tree down until he came home. But he was killed, and true to their word his parents never took the tree down. Now, as a matter of fact, this story is false. Indeed it's not even close to the truth. The local paper - the Lafayette Journal and Courier - recently carried a little piece that dispelled the near-ubiquitous myth. In fact, the family simply likes their Christmas tree and decided years ago that they'd like to enjoy it year-round. The true story isn't as good a story as the false one, and perhaps this explains why the false one had such currency. But that point to the side, we have here an example of the sort of invention that often occurs in the oral transmission of stories to do with extraordinary events (and this event isn't even that extraordinary). Human beings seem quite prone to invention, and they seem quite credulous when presented when the invention of others.

Now, what is the probability that our miracle report is not the product of human imagination? Perhaps it isn't, but how are we to know? If we knew that humans exercised extreme epistemological caution about such things - if we knew, that is, that they were careful never to invent and careful never to embellish - we might conclude that they story is likely veridical. But we don't know this; and, it seems to me, we don't know what probability to assign to I.

Let us turn to II. I have little to say about it. Indeed I have but one point to make. Our knowledge of nature is far from complete; and for all we know, science might well undergo radical revolution in the future. Thus it seems to me that we have little reason to suppose that, when presented with an event which cannot as yet be explained naturalistically, there likely is no naturalistic explanation. Let me put the point this way. Let us say that we've witnessed an event which seems unexplainable naturalistically - say the resurrection of a man three-days dead. There are two sorts of explanation open to us: (i) natural but as-of-yet undiscovered, and (ii) supernatural. We may rule out i only if we have good reason to think it likely that our grasp of the laws that govern natural processes is complete, or near-complete. But we don't possess that good reason. (We at present don't even have a coherent physics. We use General Relativity for a certain class of entity, and Quantum Dynamics for another; and at present no one knows how they are to be integrated.) Moreover, we ought to admit a very real possibility that the science of today will be discarded for a new, radically different science - it's happened before; and the putative miracle might be easily explained naturalistically on the new science.

Thus at present we have no good reason to suppose that ii must be embraced and i rejected. If we reject i and embrace ii, it's high speculation indeed.

Let us turn to III. Here I admit almost total ignorance. Christianity tells me of a host of supernatural entities - God, angles, and devils - all capable of intervention in the natural world. Other religions increase that host many times over. At present, I believe in one of these entities. So you tell me how I'm supposed to decide which was responsible for this or that miracle. Perhaps you will reply that God identifies Himself as the author of certain miracles. I'm unimpressed, for in my present state of ignorance it seems quite possible that there is another supernatural entity which misidentifies itself as God. I have no knowledge of any supernatural entity, and so for all I know, there might be one or many who take themselves to have very good reason to make we humans believe falsely that they are God.

Conclusion. Almost certainly we have insufficient reason to accept the Gospel miracle accounts. Sub-conclusion. Even if we were to have good reason to assign I a low probability, still there are high hurdles that belief in miracles must clear. One is our II above, a second is our III; and for one in my epistemological situation - one who finds himself with little in the way of belief in the supernatural - at present they simply cannot be cleared.

Reflection. So then, I'm doubtful that miracle accounts can get religious faith off the ground. Wherever religious faith might begin, it cannot begin there. Thus I reject an all-to-common apologetic use of miracle accounts on which they are judged sufficient to give rise to faith where there was none before. But this does not mean that I think them useless to faith. On the contrary, I find it not at all improbable that they ought to find a place in a life in which the seed of faith has already been planted. They nurture that faith. They lead it to grow. But they do not plant it. This of course leaves us with the question of how faith is planted. I'll take up this question in later posts. (This is closely related to the question of the foundation of the Christian faith, discussed here, and as before I put that question off for now.)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Whole Bible Christianity

I often hear the remark that if a Christian rejects even one little bit of the Bible, she must reject it all. (Call this claim "WBC", for "Whole Bible Christianity".) This seems a belief common to those of a fundamentalist turn of mind. I wish now to consider what might be said both for and against this belief.

Note: WBC claims only that the Christian is obligated to believe that the whole of the Bible is true. It says nothing about the epistemological obligations of non-Christians. Thus for all the WBC says, it might yet be quite right for the non-Christian to, say, reject the Genesis account of creation but accept Christ's claim that the foundation of the moral law lies in the twin claims to love God and neighbor as self.

Second note: I assume throughout that Biblical interpretation is a straightforward matter, and that all intelligent, honest Bible scholars agree about its interpretation. Elsewhere (here and here) I argue that this assumption must be false. But my intent is not to rehash those arguments. Instead it is to argue that the fundamentalist take on Scripture is deeply misguided in a second, distinct way.

What argument might be offered in WBC's favor? Why might it be wrong for the Christian to accept some but not all of what the Bible claims? I know of two responses.

Response I

If after critical examination the Christian finds that some part of the Bible, no matter how small, must be rejected, the possibility exists that critical examination of the Bible will reveal that much of it must be rejected. But if the Christian admits the possibility that much of its must be rejected, she no longer has a basis for her Christian faith. Indeed, the very foundation of Christianity lies in a belief in Scripture's inerrancy, and thus if one admits the possibility of widespread Biblical error, one has shown that foundation unable to bear the weight of the Christian world-view.

Response II

The very act of critical examination of Scripture - examination of the sort that might lead one to reject some or all of it - presupposes that one is able to set oneself up as a judge of the word of God. But this of course is absurd. We humans are finite and are prone to error. We cannot possibly set ourselves up as judges of the word of God. Rather we must accept it as truth and, as best as we are able, let it guide our lives.

Of these two responses, I find the first much more powerful and subtle than the second. I'll dispense with the second quickly and then turn to the first. Response II assumes that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God and thus that we know that it is through-and-through without error. Now of course if we knew that this was so, then we would have to do as Response II tells us - we must have to simply accept the Bible and follow its dictates as best we can. But I take it that the Christian who rejects WBC does not believe that we know that the Bible is through-and-through the word of God. Thus Response II seems to beg the question at hand. It seems to presuppose rather than prove WBC.

Now for Response I. It would have us adopt the view that the foundation of the Christian faith lies in an unshakable conviction in the inerrancy of Scripture. What follows is the quick and dirty refutation of this view. (If you're dissatisfied, don't despair. I'll return to the issue in later posts.)

The belief that Scripture is inerrant, if rational, must be grounded in evidence of its inerrancy; and without that evidence, the belief is rendered irrational. Where might one look for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy? If one looks only to Scripture, one cannot possible prove that Scripture is inerrant. For to look to Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy is to assume that it is inerrant, and if one assumes inerrancy, one cannot possibly at the same time prove inerrancy. Thus one must look outside Scripture for evidence of Scripture's inerrancy But if so, belief in Scriptural inerrancy cannot be a bedrock belief. Rather, there must lie below it another belief (or set of beliefs) upon which the belief in Biblical inerrancy rests. The conclusion, of course, is that belief in Biblical inerrancy cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith. It may be part of that faith, but it does not lie at the bottom of it.

This little argument seems to me absolutely beyond reproach. Each premise is quite obviously true, and together they quite obviously imply the conclusion. We are thus forced to conclude that we must look elsewhere than Biblical inerrancy for the foundation of the Christian faith. I do not here wish to pursue the issue of the foundation of the Christian faith. Instead I wish only to consider WBC. We've rejected two attempts to prove WBC. Now let us consider what might be said against WBC.

We said that the belief in Biblical inerrancy, if justified, must be grounded in some prior belief. Let us pursue the point - we will find in it decisive reason to reject WBC. The belief (or set of beliefs) from which the consequent belief in Biblical inerrancy is to be derived serve as a test of Biblical truth. That belief (or set of beliefs) is brought to bear upon Scripture, and by means of it were are able to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false. Call that belief (or set of beliefs) that allow us to discern what in Scripture is true and what is false "ITB" for "Inerrancy Test Belief". (What lies within ITB? Moral belief, I'd reckon, together with geographical, scientific, historic, sociological, psychological, etc. ITB consists of just those beliefs bear upon the truth of Scripture but are held independently of Scripture.)

Here I wish to ask a certain, pointed question. (This question is the heart of the post.) Why suppose it impossible for the whole of Scripture to fail the test of ITB if any part passes it? I know of no reason. Think for a moment of how ITB is actually put to use in a test of Scriptural truth. It must be put to use passage by passage, assertion by assertion. Indeed it cannot be so used that the whole of Scripture is tested all at once, for the only sense one can make of the claim that the whole of Scripture has been tested is that the passages that together compose it have been tested separately.

The proper unit of the test of Scriptural truth is thus the passage. It cannot be the whole of Scripture. With this, we have our conclusion. As the test proceeds - as we consider now one passage now another - we have absolutely no reason to hold that if some passage is rejected as false, all must be rejected as false. (Indeed it seems to me that, as a matter of fact, this is precisely what happens. The world was not created in six days, but we are to love both God and the neighbor as the self.) Moreover, the fact that we reject one passage but accept another in no way serves to undermine the justification we have for the one we accept. The test of ITB - no matter the beliefs that comprise that set - can show one passage absolutely certain but later show another certainly false.

(I expect the fundamentalist to here complain that the Bible is wholly true for it is through-and-through the word of God. I have nowhere disputed this point. Instead I've said two things about it: (i) it likely begs the question against those who reject WBC, and (ii) it cannot form the foundation of the Christian faith but must rather seek support elsewhere; and as one searches for that support and brings it to bear upon the Bible, one has absolutely no right to assume at the outset that all passages will be vindicated if any are.)

Perhaps an episode from the early 19th century will drive the point home. I quote from Wikipedia:

A number of books which are part of the Greek Septuagint but are not found in the Hebrew Bible are often referred to as deuterocanonical books by Roman Catholics referring to a later secondary (i.e. deutero) canonisation. These books are not deuterocanonical for Orthodox Churches because they were always canonical for them. Most Protestants term these books as apocrypha. Evangelicals and those of the Modern Protestant traditions do not accept the deuterocanonical books as canonical, although Protestant Bibles included them until around the 1820s. However the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox Churches include these books as part of their Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church recognizes seven such books (Tobit, Judith, 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus, and Baruch), as well as some passages in Esther and Daniel. Various Orthodox Churches include a few others, typically 3 Maccabees, Psalm 151, 1 Esdras, Odes, Psalms of Solomon, and occasionally 4 Maccabees.

Why were these books excluded from Protestant Bibles? The judgment was rendered that they were not inspired and so not authoritative. An series of arguments for their non-authoritativeness is found here. The arguments rely upon many things: principles from logic to do with contradiction and consistency, moral principles, the sciences of geography, psychology, physics, etc. Note then that the process of Scriptural confirmation that I described above is at work in the rejection of the deuterocanonical books. Principles that we know independently of Scripture are brought to bear upon it passage by passage, assertion by assertion; and once this process is done, some but not all of the Bible is rejected as non-inspired and non-authoritative. So then it seems that the very process which lead to the creation of the Protestant Bible is one that Protestant fundamentalists (at least those who accept WBC, and I'd guess that this is the great majority of them) now refuse to apply any further. This is blatant inconsistency.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

An Apology, and a Little Story

I apologize to those brave few who check in on The Philosophical Midwife now and again. I've had a busy semester and haven't had the time or "brain juice" to post. (Einstein talked of "mental grease". I prefer "brain juice".)

I've decided to change my career. Before I was a moderately successful philosopher. Now I hope to become a moderately successful mathematics teacher. Before I began work in philosophy, my studies were devoted to mathematics, and to it I now return. But I hope to continue, now and again, to think and write about philosophy and religion.

A few months ago, as I sat for mass at St. Thomas Aquinas, I had what for me was an extraordinary experience. It seemed to me that I saw Christ walk down an aisle. I felt that I would succumb to the vision, that I would loose myself in it, and out of fear I pulled back. When I did, the vision ended.

My wife asked me after mass if I felt that I had imagined him. I replied that it did not seem to me that I had. Rather I had the sense that the vision came to me from without. This of course does not prove that it did come from without, but all that I wish to do is report how it seemed to me at the time.

The experience was not purely perceptual in nature. It was cognitive as well. As I've noted before, one of the foundational tenets of Christianity is that at present the world is not as it should be. Indeed for the Christian we are not now as we should be. Moreover, Christianity projects a future in which all that is not right will be made right. As I sat for mass, I took the few minutes of peace it afforded to reflect upon this Christian tenet. I began to wonder what precisely the world was like before the Fall, and what it would be like after the rift between God and man opened by the Fall was healed. The thought occurred to me that perhaps the Fall, as it were, pulled the entirety of the world through a Carrollian mirror. Perhaps it remade the world, from its constituent fundamental particles and the laws that govern them through every level of matter that supervenes upon them, and left it in a state of deep imperfection. (I take it that this view contradicts what most hold. Most hold that the Fall in some way infected humanity but that it left most of the rest of creation intact. On the common view, the nonhuman world - at least insofar as it has not suffered the consequences of human sin - is as God designed it. On the contrary, on the view that I've described, nothing is now as God designed it - not humans, not animals, not the Earth, not the solar system, not the galaxy, not the universe.)

I know that this is but the barest sketch of a view. I don't mean to develop it here. Instead all that I mean to say is that this is what occupied my thoughts when the vision of Christ began. Indeed that vision served to strengthen my conviction that this view of the Fall is true. I do not know how or why it did so, but it did.

These thoughts about the Fall did not exhaust the cognitive aspect of my experience. Concomitant with them was a deep sense of just how utterly foreign was this man who walked down the aisle. It was almost as if the culture of his time and place hung about him as a nimbus. I thought to myself that if this man were to walk among us, were to talk with us, we would think him wholly foreign. We would not understand what he did. We would be offended by what he did.

Last I was struck by the sheer physicality of the man. In my vision it seemed to me not that he was a spirit who appeared in bodily form. Rather he was a man as surely as am I.

I find that at this point words fail me. The vision was richer than I am now able to express. Perhaps I will return to it in a later post.

I have little idea of the significance of the vision, and its effects seem to have largely worn off. I am as I was before the vision. But I do retain a fear of mass. I'm afraid that the vision will take hold of me again and that, when it does, I won't be able to put a stop to it.